Laureation address: Professor The Lord Oxburgh

Honorary Degree of Doctor of Science
Laureation by Professor Peter Cawood, School of Geography and Geosciences

Friday 13 September 2013

It seems most fitting at our 600th Anniversary to acknowledge the contributions of one of Britain’s outstanding geologists, as both the University and Lord Oxburgh have a special relationship with time. In St Andrews, we are celebrating the founding of Scotland’s oldest university and the third oldest university in the English speaking world. At today’s graduation, we are also acknowledging the achievements of one who works with an even greater expanse of geological time. 4.54 billion years ago the third rock from the sun began to evolve from a molten sphere, to the blue green planet it is today, containing the resources on which we depend and the environment in which we live. Today, many may appreciate the lyricism of the great Scottish geologist James Hutton, who in 1788 described the enormity of Earth’s time as having “no vestige of a beginning – no prospect of an end”, while Hutton’s contemporary James Playfair noted, "the mind seemed to grow giddy by looking so far into the abyss of time".

Lord Oxburgh of Liverpool, universally known as Ron Oxburgh, was born in 1934 – a time not quite as far back as either the founding of this University or of planet Earth. He attended Oxford, initially studying Classics before changing to science, graduating with both a bachelors and a masters degree. While this change of heart reflected his love of geology, it would be fair to say that, like many geologists before and since, he equally loved the outdoors. Geology provided a career path to not only work in his beloved mountains, but concurrently to understand how they formed. Even today he continues to walk in the mountains and until recently ran marathons, an activity now curtailed by knee operations. I would also like to think that Ron’s strong personal commitment to the environment, which he has been prepared to express publicly from positions of influence, reflects the innate connection that many geologists, especially those working in mountains, feel for landscape and our planet’s environment.

In 1954 he moved to Princeton on a John Dill Fellowship to undertake a PhD with Harry Hess, one of the doyens of the theory of sea floor spreading and continental drift – ideas that continue to revolutionise our understanding of the Earth. His PhD project involved unravelling the geology and tectonics of Venezuela while traversing the jungles and avoiding the attendant wildlife of snakes and monkeys.

He returned to Oxford on completion of his PhD in 1960 and built an international reputation spanning the fields of structural geology, tectonics, geophysics and rare gas geochemistry. He harnessed this broad skill set in undertaking one of the first integrated studies of a young mountain belt, the Eastern Alps, in Austria, and one of his first PhD students was our current Deputy Principal, Professor Chris Hawkesworth.

Ron, like all geologists since James Hutton’s time, seeks to unravel the enormity of Earth’s history by looking at the rock archive. Ron’s significant contribution to this story has been to take the theory of plate tectonics, developed largely from observations of the modern Earth and its oceans, and to establish that it could be applied to the ancient record as preserved in mountain belts – in Ron’s case in the Austrian Alps. He was intrigued by how large scale natural processes could be quantified from the rock record, and on the thermal history of the different rock segments; his work on geodynamics was amongst the first to quantify the processes involved. He was also one of the first to use the isotopic composition of rare gasses to investigate terrestrial heat loss and to highlight the importance of the addition of mantle derived material in zones of continental extension as a mechanism of crustal growth.

After 18 years at Oxford, Ron moved to Cambridge where he merged three separate departments to establish the world-leading Department of Earth Sciences. At Cambridge he was also President of Queen’s College.

During 1967 and 1968 and again in 1985 and 1986 he was a Visiting Professor at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and in 1973-1974 he also held Visiting Professorships at Stanford and Cornell Universities. His connection with the University of St Andrews dates from this period as for four years in the late 1970s he was the external examiner of our undergraduate teaching programme.

While at Cambridge, Ron was heavily involved in the development of the Government’s Research Assessment Exercise (RAE – and what is now known as the Research Excellence Framework, or REF). This was initially through the Oxburgh review of Earth Sciences and was driven by his belief that government funding could be put to better use by targeting places doing the best research, not least so that the UK could be more competitive with the best centres internationally.

His immense scientific contributions have been recognised through election to the Royal Society in 1978, Fellowship of the Royal Academy of Engineering, and Foreign Member of the US, Australian and German Academies of Sciences. He was President of the European Union of Geoscientists from 1986-1987 and the Geological Society of London 2002-2004.

From 1988 to 1993 Lord Oxburgh was chief scientific adviser to the Ministry of Defence, undertaking a review into the safety of the UK’s nuclear weapons during a vital period in international relations, corresponding with the falls of the Berlin Wall and of the Soviet Union, and the first Gulf War. He then became Rector of Imperial College London from 1993-2000.

Knighted in 1992, created a life peer in 1999, Ron Oxburgh chaired the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Lords for four years. During this time the Committee produced a series of reports on an eclectic mix of topics ranging from Chips for Everything, Radioactive Waste Management, Renewable Energy, and Science and Treaties.

During 2004–2005 Ron was non-executive chairman of Shell, having previously served on its board for a number of years. His appointment followed a crisis in which the oil reserves of the company underwent a number of abrupt downward revisions. In contrast to many working in the hydrocarbon sector, he used this important position to express his fears for the planet, resulting from increased carbon dioxide emissions and climate change. He noted that, “We have no time to lose … we have roughly 45 years and if we start NOW, not in 10 or 15 years’ time, we have a chance of hitting targets [for reductions in carbon dioxide emissions]”. Unfortunately, nearly a decade has passed since he spoke those words and we are still waiting on any real change.

He continues to champion alternative energy sources. He is (or has been) chairman of a number of new generation greentech startups, as well as being Honorary President of the Carbon Capture and Storage Association and serves in an advisory role to Deutsche Bank and McKinsey on energy and environmental matters.

His passion for the environment, climate change and energy resources has earned him widespread recognition as a public advocate in both academia and the business world in addressing the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and develop alternative energy sources. He has focused on the impact of science on society, with active engagement in debates on climate change, radioactive waste disposal, water resources, global development and green energy.

Following the 2009 hacking of emails from the Climatic Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, Ron chaired the independent Science Assessment Panel and found the research of the Unit to have been “carried out with integrity”.

Since the late 1990s Lord Oxburgh has advised the Singaporean government on a number of issues associated with clean energy and in 2012 was granted honorary citizenship by the President of Singapore.

It is clear from the career path Ron has followed that in addition to a keen scientific mind he possesses a keen sense of integrity and honesty, which linked to his interpersonal skills, has enabled him to influence diverse segments of society. I am reminded of the early 1980s movie Ghostbusters and its theme song of the same name which had as its first verse:

If there's something strange
in your neighbourhood
Who ya gonna call?

Well, when there is ‘something strange’ going on in the academic, government or business neighbourhood that is in need of reform – ya call Ron Oxburgh!

To describe Lord Oxburgh as a geologist is a bit like describing Lord Byron as a writer. He is a true Renaissance Man and is not only a world-leading academic, but has made exceptional contributions to academic leadership and in ensuring that science informs the highest level of political and commercial debate.